Antonio Gibson's growth among Washington's reasons for optimism in 2022

ASHBURN, Va. -- After Washington Football Team running back Antonio Gibson received the handoff Sunday, he did something he hasn't always done: He remained patient. Gibson ran to his left at less than full speed, waiting for the right time to cut back. When he saw the opening, and the linebackers had overflowed to their right, Gibson hit it hard.

The 27-yard carry occurred in a meaningless 22-7 win against the New York Giants. But it was the sort of run that provides Washington (7-10) optimism moving forward. And it wasn't the only carry in Gibson's career-best 146-yard rushing day that highlighted lessons learned over the past two years.

The former college receiver at Memphis, a fourth-round pick in 2020, has only been a full-time running back for two seasons, so each week includes room for improvement. Sometimes it's about lowering his shoulder more consistently. Other times it's about patience.

"I took everything that I learned over these last two seasons and it clicked. I kind of had to sit back and tell myself, like, 'Man, that was a running back game. You finally got it a little bit,'" Gibson said.

That's why Sunday's outing mattered, even if the teams entered the game with a combined 10 wins. It also mattered that some key blocks were thrown by a rookie tight end (John Bates) and a rookie right tackle (Sam Cosmi), both of whom could factor into the future.

Washington faces a lot of questions on its offense. The team is expected to pursue a number of options at quarterback. Then it needs more help for Terry McLaurin at receiver. That could come from the returned health of receiver Curtis Samuel, tight end Logan Thomas and running back J.D. McKissic. Or the development of receiver Dyami Brown, a third-round rookie this season. Or from another signing or draft pick.

But Sunday's game, and Washington's four-game winning streak earlier in the season, highlighted what this offense can do well. Gibson's season was disrupted in part by injuries -- he said during the season that he had a hairline fracture in his shin, and he hurt his toe late in the year -- though he missed only one game. He still managed to rush for 1,037 yards.

"We should see the things we did well, which was running the ball, and we should definitely build off it," Washington left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said. "We don't have to completely revamp everything but ... running the ball is something we definitely can do moving forward."

In their last five wins, Gibson rushed for a combined 504 yards and three touchdowns. It wasn't just a matter of running out the clock, it was the strategy throughout the game. To build a better, more consistent offense in 2022 Washington must develop a stronger passing attack. But Gibson's third-year growth will be essential.

In one sequence Sunday, he carried the ball three times in four plays. He gained 11, 9 and 17 yards, respectively, on those carries because of the growth in his game. He also scored on an 18-yard touchdown run and matched his season-high with that 27-yard carry.

On the 27-yarder, for example, Gibson pressed the hole in textbook style, getting a yard behind his linemen before cutting.

"He's really grown a lot," Washington coach Ron Rivera said.

Last season, Gibson often would be patient but hit the wrong hole. At times this season, he was hitting the right hole but he wasn't as patient. Time and again Sunday he set up the Giants' defense by pressing the hole then cutting it back to the right one. It led to overpursuing defenders and missed arm-tackle attempts.

"It's kind of putting it all together, and it showed [Sunday]," Gibson said. "I felt like I showed the patience. I hit the hole hard. Got north and south. Not trying to run east and west and trying to make something happen that's not there. I feel like it's all coming together."

One criticism coaches relayed to Gibson during their Week 9 bye week was to quit abandoning a lane when he saw a defensive back in the hole. At his size (6-foot-2, 220 pounds), they told him to just run through them. He started doing that more. They also wanted Gibson to show more forward lean through the hole rather than running straight up as he did often his rookie year.

"He's really coming into his own as far as just playing with the physicality that you look for in a [big] back," offensive coordinator Scott Turner said last month. "He's making himself hard to tackle. He runs hard ... That physical aspect has been really good. There's been glimpses of it, but really that's becoming who he is, which is great to see."

It’s what they need to see in 2022 if they want to stop a skid of five consecutive losing seasons. To help, Gibson plans to hire a nutritionist and work on cutting drills to become more explosive.

"You have to learn everything from scratch, and most people when they get there, they already got that," Gibson said of his transition from college receiver. "I was just like, 'Man, stop being so tough on yourself, it's coming together at my pace. It may not be at everybody's pace, but it's at my pace and it's showing."